Kazakhstan-300x225For Kazakhstan, the 2012 Olympics may finally be an occasion to revive its brand, or to at last put the country on the athletic map.

On the first day of the London Olympics, 38 year-old Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov upset many favorites, including British Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, to take the gold medal in the men’s road race event. As a fan of cycling (and geography), I was really excited by the outcome.

But is wasn’t until I spoke with, Darya Akhmedzhanova, our Truth Central leader in Kazakhstan, that I realized just how meaningful Vino’s victory has been for her countrymen. “As a nation, Kazakhstan has been struggling with its image on international scene, exacerbated by the Borat film and people’s reaction to it,” she said. And for good reason: In one painful instance at the Arab Shooting Championship earlier this year the event organizers managed to confuse Kazakhstan’s national anthem with the fake one from Borat. Furthermore, as Darya has observed,, “Most people have never even heard of Kazakhstan or think it is a ‘nowhere’ place.”

Following this theme, The Daily Mail of the UK called Vino “Nowhere Man!” a label that Kazakhs including Darya didn’t take sitting down. However, in Kazakhstan global ignorance about their country can also be a source of amusement. “We were amused to see posts and tweets from other nations’ Olympic fans expressing surprise at our country,” Darya told me. A favorite of hers: “Kazakhstan is at 6th place [in the medal count]? What is going on in the world? Is the apocalypse approaching?”

Thanks to Vino, perhaps Kazakhstan has a chance to rebrand itself from “the middle of nowhere” to what Darya calls “an Olympic champions’ forge.” But can brands get in on the action and rising national sentiment?

When it comes to reinvigorating a national brand, it’s interesting to consider the fantastic work created for Rom bar by the McCann team over in Romania.

After discovering that the top Google autocomplete terms for “Romanians are…” included “stupid” “ugly” and “rude” the national candy bar brand had a mission. Rom and McCann Romania put out viral internet ads showing the denigrating results and then created the romaniansaresmart.com webpage to help generate searches for “Romanians are smart” in as many European languages as possible. The campaign made headlines all over the continent and saw Romania truly reinvent its image online. “Romanians are smart” is now the first autocomplete option in most European countries. The Rom bar was also a winner: Sales were up 20% and market share grew by 8%.

With Vinokourov now a national hero and Olympic star he may just be the right symbol for Kazakhstan and its consumer brands to rally behind. Kazakhstan is still celebrating Vinokourov’s victory and his amazing cycling career, and Darya is pleased to report that people are now Google searching her country without including the dreaded B-word . Olympic success is clearly a narrative Kazakhstan can embrace. But for now, the country and its fans are just glad that the Olympic Committee played the right anthem at the medal ceremony!